Universal Soil Loss Equation

The Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) is a widely used mathematical model that describes soil erosion processes.[1]

Erosion models play critical roles in soil and water resource conservation and nonpoint source pollution assessments, including: sediment load assessment and inventory, conservation planning and design for sediment control, and for the advancement of scientific understanding. The USLE or one of its derivatives are main models used by United States government agencies to measure water erosion.[2]

The USLE was developed in the U.S., based on soil erosion data collected beginning in the 1930s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Soil Conservation Service (now the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service).[3][4] The model has been used for decades for purposes of conservation planning both in the United States where it originated and around the world, and has been used to help implement the United States' multibillion-dollar conservation program. The Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE)[5] and the Modified Universal Soil Loss Equation (MUSLE) continue to be used for similar purposes.

Overview of erosion models

The two primary types of erosion models are process-based models and empirically based models. Process-based (physically based) models mathematically describe the erosion processes of detachment, transport, and deposition and through the solutions of the equations describing those processes provide estimates of soil loss and sediment yields from specified land surface areas. Erosion science is not sufficiently advanced for there to exist completely process-based models which do not include empirical aspects. The primary indicator, perhaps, for differentiating process-based from other types of erosion models is the use of the sediment continuity equation discussed below. Empirical models relate management and environmental factors directly to soil loss and/or sedimentary yields through statistical relationships. Lane et al.[6] provided a detailed discussion regarding the nature of process-based and empirical erosion models, as well as a discussion of what they termed conceptual models, which lie somewhere between the process-based and purely empirical models. Current research effort involving erosion modeling is weighted toward the development of process-based erosion models. On the other hand, the standard model for most erosion assessment and conservation planning is the empirically based USLE, and there continues to be active research and development of USLE-based erosion prediction technology.

Description of USLE

The USLE was developed from erosion plot and rainfall simulator experiments. The USLE is composed of six factors to predict the long-term average annual soil loss (A). The equation includes the rainfall erosivity factor (R), the soil erodibility factor (K), the topographic factors (L and S) and the cropping management factors (C and P). The equation takes the simple product form:

The USLE has another concept of experimental importance, the unit plot concept. The unit plot is defined as the standard plot condition to determine the soil's erodibility. These conditions are when the LS factor = 1 (slope = 9% and length = 72.6 feet) where the plot is fallow and tillage is up and down slope and no conservation practices are applied (CP=1). In this state:

A simpler method to predict K was presented by Wischmeier et al.[7] which includes the particle size of the soil, organic matter content, soil structure and profile permeability. The soil erodibility factor K can be approximated from a nomograph if this information is known. The LS factors can easily be determined from a slope effect chart by knowing the length and gradient of the slope. The cropping management factor (C) and conservation practices factor (P) are more difficult to obtain and must be determined empirically from plot data. They are described in soil loss ratios (C or P with / C or P without).

See also

  • Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control (CPESC)
  • Erosion control
  • WEPP (Water Erosion Prediction Project), a physically based erosion simulation model


  1. ^ Hudson, Norman (1993). Field Measurement of Soil Erosion and Runoff, Issue 68. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. pp. 121–126. ISBN 9789251034064.
  2. ^ National Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington, DC. 61 FR 27998 "Technical Assistance." 1996-06-04.
  3. ^ Wischmeier, W.H. and D.D. Smith. 1978. "Predicting Rainfall Erosion Losses: A Guide to Conservation Planning." Agriculture Handbook No. 537. USDA/Science and Education Administration, US. Govt. Printing Office, Washington, DC. 58pp.
  4. ^ Wischmeier, W. H., and D. D. Smith, 1960. "A universal soil-loss equation to guide conservation farm planning." Trans. Int. Congr. Soil Sci., 7th, p. 418-425.
  5. ^ United States Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Service. 2014. "Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) - Welcome to RUSLE 1 and RUSLE 2".
  6. ^ Lane, L.J., E.D. Shirley, and V.P. Singh. 1988. "Modeling erosion on hillslopes." p.287-308. In: M.G. Anderson (ed.) "Modeling Geomorphological Systems." John Wiley, Publ., NY.
  7. ^ Wischmeier, W.H., C.B. Johnson, and B.V. Cross. 1971. "A soil erodibility nomograph for farmland and construction sites." Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 26:189-193. ISSN 1941-3300

External links

Chalk stream

Chalk streams are streams that flow through chalk hills towards the sea. They are typically wide and shallow, and due to the filtering effect of the chalk their waters are alkaline and very clear. Chalk streams are popular with fly fishermen who fish for trout on these rivers.


Erodability (or erodibility) is the inherent yielding or nonresistance of soils and rocks to erosion. A high erodability implies that the same amount of work exerted by the erosion processes leads to a larger removal of material. Because the mechanics behind erosion depend upon the competence and coherence of the material, erodability is treated in different ways depending on the type of surface that eroded.

Erosion control

Erosion control is the practice of preventing or controlling wind or water erosion in agriculture, land development, coastal areas, river banks and construction. Effective erosion controls handle surface runoff and are important techniques in preventing water pollution, soil loss, wildlife habitat loss and human property loss.

Erosion prediction

There are dozens of erosion prediction models. Some models focus on long-term (natural or geological) erosion, as a component of landscape evolution. However, many erosion models were developed to quantify the effects of accelerated soil erosion i.e. soil erosion as influenced by human activity.

Most soil erosion models consider only soil erosion by water, however a few aim to predict wind erosion. Models which consider tillage erosion are rare. Also soil erosion models have been more commonly developed for use on agricultural landscapes, rather than on naturally vegetated areas (such as rangeland or forests). A few erosion models focus on erosion on mined areas.

The aim of the majority of soil erosion models is to predict average rates (often an annual average rate) of soil loss from an area such as a plot, a field or a catchment/watershed under various land management techniques. Some erosion models are purely statistical, others more mechanistic (or physically based). Two of the more widely used soil erosion models in North America are the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) and the Water Erosion Prediction Project erosion model (WEPP). Much of the mineland erosion literature is solely focused on fitting or improving RUSLE parameters. Few soil erosion models consider gully erosion, mostly due to difficulties in modelling these large erosional features.

Several studies have evaluated the ability of soil erosion models to realistically predict measured rates of erosion, mainly on agricultural landscapes. There is often a wide discrepancy between predicted and observed erosion rates. Thus soil erosion models are still better as research tools than as public policy and regulatory instruments or for prescriptive design measures for constructed landforms. However soil erosion models may provide useful guidance for the design engineer if adequately calibrated and verified for local conditions and if the design accounts for the uncertainty.

Most erosion modelling is applied to existing sites of known topography and material properties to guide land management activities. Designers of constructed landforms, however, have considerable control over the topography, cover soil placement, initial revegetation, and to a lesser extent the substrate properties – flexibility that is generally uneconomical for farmers and ranchers and most users of erosion models. On the other hand, miners have little input into post-closure land use practices and management.

Methods to estimate erosion rates include:

purely statistical models

subjectively determined erosion rates using expert judgement combined with a database of erosion rates of natural and reclaimed sites (natural and industrial analogs)

surveying of existing erosional or depositional features of known age (or as determined by dating of deposits) to determine average erosion rates. Analysis of historical aerial photographs is often employed.

site-specific empirical models that relate slope, watershed size, and rainfall

empirical and semi-empirical or deterministic models based on laboratory and field flume measurements of erosion under simulated rainfall or flow conditions

physically based gully erosion models

landform and landscape scale models, often GIS-based, that apply erosion mechanics or statistical relationships to predict changes in topography and erosion rates

sediment-budget models based on watershed monitoring.

Human impact on the environment

Human impact on the environment or anthropogenic impact on the environment includes changes to biophysical environments and ecosystems, biodiversity, and natural resources caused directly or indirectly by humans, including global warming, environmental degradation (such as ocean acidification), mass extinction and biodiversity loss, ecological crisis, and ecological collapse. Modifying the environment to fit the needs of society is causing severe effects, which become worse as the problem of human overpopulation continues. Some human activities that cause damage (either directly or indirectly) to the environment on a global scale include human reproduction, overconsumption, overexploitation, pollution, and deforestation, to name but a few. Some of the problems, including global warming and biodiversity loss pose an existential risk to the human race, and overpopulation causes those problems.The term anthropogenic designates an effect or object resulting from human activity. The term was first used in the technical sense by Russian geologist Alexey Pavlov, and it was first used in English by British ecologist Arthur Tansley in reference to human influences on climax plant communities. The atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen introduced the term "Anthropocene" in the mid-1970s. The term is sometimes used in the context of pollution emissions that are produced from human activity but also applies broadly to all major human impacts on the environment.

River ecosystem

River ecosystems are flowing waters that drain the landscape, and include the biotic (living) interactions amongst plants, animals and micro-organisms, as well as abiotic (nonliving) physical and chemical interactions of its many parts. River ecosystems are part of larger watershed networks or catchments, where smaller headwater streams drain into mid-size streams, which progressively drain into larger river networks.

River ecosystems are prime examples of lotic ecosystems. Lotic refers to flowing water, from the Latin lotus, meaning washed. Lotic waters range from springs only a few centimeters wide to major rivers kilometers in width. Much of this article applies to lotic ecosystems in general, including related lotic systems such as streams and springs. Lotic ecosystems can be contrasted with lentic ecosystems, which involve relatively still terrestrial waters such as lakes, ponds, and wetlands. Together, these two ecosystems form the more general study area of freshwater or aquatic ecology.

The following unifying characteristics make the ecology of running waters unique among aquatic habitats.

Flow is unidirectional.

There is a state of continuous physical change.

There is a high degree of spatial and temporal heterogeneity at all scales (microhabitats).

Variability between lotic systems is quite high.

The biota is specialized to live with flow conditions.

Sediment control

A sediment control is a practice or device designed to keep eroded soil on a construction site, so that it does not wash off and cause water pollution to a nearby stream, river, lake, or sea. Sediment controls are usually employed together with erosion controls, which are designed to prevent or minimize erosion and thus reduce the need for sediment controls. Sediment controls are generally designed to be temporary measures, however, some can be used for storm water management purposes.

Soil conservation

Soil conservation is the prevention of soil loss from erosion or prevention of reduced fertility caused by over usage, acidification, salinization or other chemical soil contamination.

Slash-and-burn and other unsustainable methods of subsistence farming are practiced in some lesser developed areas. A sequel to the deforestation is typically large scale erosion, loss of soil nutrients and sometimes total desertification. Techniques for improved soil conservation include crop rotation, cover crops, conservation tillage and planted windbreaks, affect both erosion and fertility. When plants, especially trees, die they decay and become part of the soil. Code 330 defines standard methods recommended by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Farmers have practiced soil conservation for millennia. In Europe, policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy are targeting the application of best management practices such as reduced tillage, winter cover crops, plant residues and grass margins in order to better address the soil conservation.Political and economic action is further required to solve the erosion problem. A simple governance hurdle concerns how we name and value the land and what we call it and this can be changed by cultural adaptation.

Soil erosion

Soil erosion is the displacement of the upper layer of soil, one form of soil degradation. This natural process is caused by the dynamic activity of erosive agents, that is, water, ice (glaciers), snow, air (wind), plants, animals, and humans. In accordance with these agents, erosion is sometimes divided into water erosion, glacial erosion, snow erosion, wind (aeolean) erosion, zoogenic erosion, and anthropogenic erosion.

Soil erosion may be a slow process that continues relatively unnoticed, or it may occur at an alarming rate causing a serious loss of topsoil. The loss of soil from farmland may be reflected in reduced crop production potential, lower surface water quality and damaged drainage networks.

Human activities have increased by 10–40 times the rate at which erosion is occurring globally. Excessive (or accelerated) erosion causes both "on-site" and "off-site" problems. On-site impacts include decreases in agricultural productivity and (on natural landscapes) ecological collapse, both because of loss of the nutrient-rich upper soil layers. In some cases, the eventual end result is desertification. Off-site effects include sedimentation of waterways and eutrophication of water bodies, as well as sediment-related damage to roads and houses. Water and wind erosion are the two primary causes of land degradation; combined, they are responsible for about 84% of the global extent of degraded land, making excessive erosion one of the most significant environmental problems worldwide.Intensive agriculture, deforestation, roads, anthropogenic climate change and urban sprawl are amongst the most significant human activities in regard to their effect on stimulating erosion. However, there are many prevention and remediation practices that can curtail or limit erosion of vulnerable soils.


The Water Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP) Model is a physically based erosion simulation model built on the fundamentals of hydrology, plant science, hydraulics, and erosion mechanics. The model was developed by an interagency team of scientists to replace the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) and has been widely used in the United States and the world. WEPP requires four inputs, i.e., climate, topography, soil, and management (vegetation); and provides various types of outputs, including water balance (surface runoff, subsurface flow, and evapotranspiration), soil detachment and deposition at points along the slope, sediment delivery, and vegetation growth. The WEPP model has been improved continuously since its public delivery in 1995, and is applicable for a variety of areas (e.g., cropland, rangeland, forestry, fisheries, and surface coal mining).

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